Many family Christmas memories revolve around the Christmas tree. These stories rarely have to do with the magnificence of the tree. In fact, Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree may be our culture’s most famous Christmas tree, standing for the true meaning of the season.
We have many family stories about our Christmas trees beginning with our first Christmas in Greenfield in 1971. I was a single mother of five children when I came to town. Our life had changed and so had many of the family routines and rituals.
As a gift, a new friend invited me and the children out to the Heath wilderness (as yet totally unknown to us) for a picturesque outing to cut down our own tree. There had been snow and frigid weather, but that afternoon was relatively warm and sunny, a perfect day for a holiday outing. The boys had disappeared, but the three girls aged 7, 9, and 10, and I set off with our friend caroling and laughing.
We got to Heath and started trekking through the woods. Unfortunately, though our friend was kind, he didn’t know much about Christmas trees, or even about the woodlot he drove us to. We found nothing resembling our fantasy Christmas tree. Even worse, the sun had softened the snow crust and the going was hard. Kathy, at 7, was floundering and falling in the deep snow. Everyone was getting colder and wetter as the sun hid itself. I decided that the next tree we saw would be the perfect tree. No arguments allowed. We cut it down, dragged it out to the road, and lashed it to the car. The car heater conked out and we were exhausted. There were no carols or happy chatter on the way home.
Happily, Henry, the man I had recently met and would eventually marry, met us at the door. While I got the girls into hot baths and their warm nighties, Henry set up the tree. The trunk was crooked and it took lots of guy wiring to hold it stable. The sparse branches started to drop their needles almost immediately and my two sons just hooted in derision when they finally made their appearance.
I said the tree gave us lots of scope for ornaments. Unfortunately, somehow, in the move from Connecticut, all the Christmas ornaments disappeared, including all those my children had made in school over the years. There was no money for a treeful of ornaments, so we all sat around the table to make lots of big construction paper decorations, some of which still go on the tree every year.
That was our first Christmas tree with Henry. In 1975 we moved to New York City to live in his ancestral apartment. One year there we had a magical tree. A friend came in with presents and an angel he had made for the tree top. He gave it a casual toss across the room – and it landed gently, and perfectly, just where it should.
After four years in the city we moved to Heath. The boys were out on their own so only the three girls made the move with us the day after Thanksgiving.
This time it was easy to cut down our own tree. It was growing right in front of the kitchen window, blocking the light and the view. It was big and beautiful and shapely. It was also a blue spruce, with stiff branches and the prickliest needles. It nearly killed us to get it cut down and into the house, fighting us every inch of the way.
From our elderly neighbor Mabel Vreeland we learned about snowbelts, and over time we planted a triple row of evergreens, tiny seedlings, purchased from the Conservation Service, along our road. Our plan was to over -plant so that we could thin the snowbreak by taking out a Christmas tree every year. And that is what we have done. No longer do we trek through unfamiliar woods, but just down over our field. We don’t pay much attention to the snowbelt and sometimes the trees are small, sometimes tall, sometimes quite odd, but we can always say we planted them and grew them ourselves.
This year we have what I think of as a dancing tree. The trunk twists first one way and then the other. The branches go up on one side and down on the other. If it were a Jules Feiffer cartoon character it would be dancing an ode to the solstice. There is lots of scope for ornaments.
No matter what the Christmas tree looks like – and when we spent a year in Beijing it was a potted osmanthus decorated with shiny ribbon and a handful of sequined ornaments – to me the evergreen tree (even the osmanthus) is the place where we gather with beloved family and friends to celebrate the generosity of the season. And I don’t refer to all the shopping at the mall, but to the thought and kindnesses that we render each other throughout the season, the care we take of others when we make donations to the Food Bank or Warm the Children, and the prayers we utter for peace on earth, good will toward men.
Between the Rows December 24, 2011